Forest collaboration is garnering some heavyweight support from conservationists who see collaboratives as forums for building trust, without which there can be no permanent resolution of the useless timber wars.

"When we leave forests to nature, as so many people today seem to want to do, we get whatever nature serves up, which can be pretty devastating at times, but with forestry we have options, and a degree of predictability not found in nature."
- Alan Houston

This is the first in a series of essays I am writing that I suspect will surprise many who know me. I am embracing Forest Collaboration, a process that many battle-scarred veterans of the fabled timber wars view as “Sleeping with the enemy,” the enemy here being the slew of environmental litigants that killed the federal timber sale program and thus the economies of the West’s rural timber communities.

What brought me to this point is the same thing that brought Mike Petersen to it. Though Mike and I are not related, we separately came to the same conclusion, and that conclusion is that neither litigation nor forestry education as I have preached it has worked. Or as Mike said to me when I recently asked him why the Spokane-based Lands Council ditched litigation in favor of collaboration, “We weren’t getting our needs met.” A great many lumbermen I know have come to the same conclusion.

When I started Evergreen Magazine in 1986, I had no idea how long or unsatisfying the trip would be. If I had, I probably would have walked away from the idea. It has cost me a bloody fortune.

When we unveiled the magazine – the “we” here being a small group of southern Oregon lumbermen who bankrolled my idea for a few years – we said we would “help advance public understanding and support for science-based forestry.” We saw applied forest science as key to quickly winning the escalating war of words that was then being waged in western Oregon. We were wrong.

For the record, I am not a forester. I am a writer by profession. I have a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Idaho, with majors in journalism and broadcasting. What I know about forestry I have learned by listening, and asking smart people stupid questions.

Evergreen was never intended to be a long term venture. We figured we would fold up shop once the final forest plans were issued. But they never were, so I’m still at it, though I frequently wonder why.

Our goal was to encourage citizen participation in the congressionally mandated National Forest Planning Process created within the framework of the 1976 Forest Management Act. Amid western lumbermen, there was a deep fear that national forest harvest levels that had grown steadily since the end of the Second World War would suddenly reverse course. They were right.

The National Forest System spans 190 million acres and 155 National Forests, so it took the U.S. Forest Service nearly a decade to complete its first round of 10-year planning. But in a matter of months after we published our first Evergreen edition, seven forest plans hit the streets in southwest Oregon and northern California. I was soon up to my eyeballs in documents that were measured by weight, not number of pages. The average plan weighed about 13 pounds.

My task was to read the plans, translate them into plain English and publish editions of Evergreen Magazine featuring each plan. We targeted civic and business groups and news organizations in more than 100 smaller communities in the region. Recall that the Internet did not yet exist and no one had ever heard of e-mail. We had telephones, Fax machines and the U.S. Post Office. That was it.

In its wisdom, the Forest Service selected a “Preferred Alternative” for each of its plans. We endorsed these alternatives on all but the Rogue River National Forest, which had, inexplicably, destroyed every document it used in preparing its plan. To this day, I have no idea why they did it.

Most civic groups I talked to – and there were dozens – said they would endorse the alternative we recommended. Following their suggestion, we started inserting check-the-box comment cards in issues of Evergreen. I have no idea how many hundred thousand cards we printed, but the Forest Service later told me that they could trace more public comments to Evergreen than any other source. I figured this was good news – until the agency’s Washington Office issued an edict which said it would favor “substantive comments,” meaning well written letters from the hoy polloi.

Enter the terrible swift sword of the late Oregon Senator, Mark Hatfield, who was then Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. The normally well composed Hatfield told the Forest Service on no uncertain term that they would give as much weight to comments received from loggers as they did comments received from the environmentalists. It made nice poetry, but I remember thinking at the time that the Forest Service was only paying lip service to the comments it was receiving from rural timber communities. Naturally, the agency denied the bias many of us suspected.

I don’t know if the bias we feared had a factual basis because the entire public comment process was blown to smithereens in federal courtrooms in Seattle, Portland and San Francisco. But over the years since the federal timber sale program collapsed, I have concluded that our ability to use the pages of Evergreen Magazine to motivate grassroots participation to the mandated forest planning process scared the hell out of mainstream environmental groups that had found little support for their anti-logging themes in the rural West. By 1989, they had abandoned citizen engagement for litigation. That same year, Evergreen Magazine circulation topped 100,000. No one in the forestry world had ever seen anything like it.

Andy Stahl, who was then a resource analyst with the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund blithely explained the rationale for litigation at an “Adopt-a-Forest Workshop” in Portland, Oregon in November, 1988.

“Judges are like six-year olds,” Stahl told his audience. “They don’t know any more about forestry or national forests or the Forest Service laws than six-year-olds do. What they react to is a good story, a story about the land that’s being destroyed. And that’s what you have to tell the judge. And, hopefully, during this talk some of these examples will clue you in as to how to tell this good story, because it is a great story, because it’s great land out there we’re trying to save.”

Stahl’s assessment of federal court judges as foresters was correct. They didn’t – and still don’t – know the first thing about forestry. But they did shut down the federal timber sale program, just as Stahl and environmental litigators expected they would. Unfortunately, using the Endangered Species Act to crush the federal timber sale program has done nothing to “save” the national forests that Mr. Stahl and his colleagues set out to protect.

For me, the take home lesson here rests in a wisdom shared with me 20 years ago by my friend Leonard Netzorg, easily the finest lawyer ever to represent the interests of the West’s independent lumbermen. Although he had witnessed dazzling change in both forestry and wood processing in his 40-some years in courtrooms, he had come to believe that science and technology could not overcome the limits of public acceptance of logging’s often stark visual impacts.

“There are no silver bullets,” he declared. “No smoking guns, no legal end-runs, no grand public relations programs and no miracle scientific discoveries in the wings that can alter the public’s distaste for that which it finds visually offensive. What we have here is a societal problem caused by changing social values.”

“The public,” Netzorg concluded, “was not willing to surrender its decision-making to scientists, no matter how smart they were.”

What Leonard was telling me was that my educational approach probably wasn’t going to work either. It wasn’t that our message was wrong or exaggerated. If anything it was understated. But the time wasn’t right. The public had seen the results of the pendulum swinging too far in favor of logging, but it had not yet seen the visual impacts of what happens when forests are left to the unpredictable forces of nature.

I cannot tell you when the Mike Petersen’s of the world began talking collaboration with lumbermen because I was not involved in any of those early conversations. But I can tell you that, on the lumber side, one of the collaborative pioneers was my long-time friend, Duane Vaagen. Duane owns Vaagen Brothers Lumber Company at Colville, Washington, about 90 miles north of Spokane. He is one of the best “out of the box” thinkers I’ve ever known.

I can also tell you that Scott Atkison, president of the Idaho Forest Group, which owns five sawmills in Idaho, quietly embraced collaboration about six years ago. Scott is the grandson of another good friend, Dick Bennett, Idaho’s most successful independent lumbermen. Under Scott’s able leadership, IFG is participating in several successful collaborative efforts on the Clearwater-Nez Perce and Idaho Panhandle National Forests.

In my nearly 30 years in the forestry education business, this is the best news I’ve heard. It easily trumps my considerable behind the scenes involvement in congressional ratification of the 2003 Healthy Forests Restoration Act. HFRA drew support of several wildlife conservation groups, but many environmental groups were deeply suspicious of the Act, which they feared would jump-start the old federal timber sale program. It didn’t, but their fears nonetheless spoke to the high level of distrust that lingered for years following the litigation driven collapse of the federal timber program.

As a precursor to our upcoming essays, it is well worth noting that, amid the crazy quilt of environmental regulation Congress has written in the name of conservation, not a single federal forest plan prepared under the aegis of the 1976 National Forest Management Act has ever been fully implemented. Not one. No wonder anger and distrust still linger across much of the rural West.

In this series of more or less weekly essays, which will run until September, and perhaps beyond, I intend to dig deeply into the collaborative process. I’ll be interviewing environmentalists, lumbermen, county commissioners, state legislators and members of the U.S. House and Senate. Suffice it to say, collaboration has witnessed some embarrassing failures and some quiet but notable successes.

Together, we’ll learn what works, what doesn’t work, and why. We’ll also dig into the factors that seem to limit success, or at least threaten collaboration’s long-term sustainability. There are some that demand our attention.

Based on what we learn, I expect we will call on Congress to do what must be done to support voluntary citizen engagement in a process that House and Senate conferees have not shielded from litigation. Is the mere presence of the nations’ most influential and affluent conservation groups – including the Nature Conservancy – enough to scare away serial litigants? I don’t know, but I can tell you that forest collaboration is garnering some heavyweight political and financial support from conservationists who see collaboratives as forums for building trust, without which there can be no permanent resolution of the useless timber wars. So much time, talent and money wasted, including my own.

Onward we go.

Jim Petersen
Founder and President
The non-profit Evergreen Foundation

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